Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought
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Derailed trains of thought
“Après moi le déraillement”

Off the Deep End: Brainwashed by Teenagers

Cooking Your Own Clothing 
Kiss of the Spiderwoman 
Love Potion No. 9½ 
Male Problem-Solving 
Rent a Husband 
Rent a Wife 
Brainwashed by Teenagers 

Cooking Your Own Clothing

By Steve and Elise Dunham, copyright 2001

Clothing is one of the world’s great overlooked food sources. Few people think about cooking it, yet clothing is abundant, high in fiber, and easily prepared.

Like many of history’s outstanding discoveries, ours came by accident. Our clothes dryer went on the fritz, and the outside clothesline and the laundromat just did not have the all-weather, high-speed turnaround capability necessary for life in the fast lane.

Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but of great chefs too. Awaking one morning to find no clean underwear, we employed the age-old method of washing clothes by hand. But drying them before leaving for work, without using a dryer? Then a great light dawned: use the oven! Thus was born our first recipe …

Roast Undies

Anyone can try this simple recipe. Take clean, wet underwear and wring it out. With the oven set at 350, spread the underwear on an oven rack and roast it for 15 minutes. Then turn it over and roast it for another 15. When it’s done it will be crisp and warm, with golden lines from the oven rack.

Hanky Bake

There’s nothing worse than starting the day with yesterday’s handkerchief, especially when you have a cold. But a nice, warm handkerchief fresh from the oven feels so good on your poor nose. Set the oven at 325 and spread a wet, clean handkerchief on the rack. Handkerchiefs are made of thinner fabric than underwear, so the cooking time is less. You also don’t have to turn them over. You can easily toast a handkerchief while you’re having breakfast. Just pop it in the oven, and when you’re finishing your second cup of coffee, the handkerchief will be turning a golden brown.

Socks au Rotten

Now let’s try something a little more difficult. Socks come in so many sizes and thicknesses that you have to watch them carefully. It’s all too easy to overcook or undercook socks. Our rule of thumb is 15 minutes of cooking time for each ounce of sock. (Socks made of pure synthetics need only 10 minutes per ounce. You don’t want to open the oven to find drooping, gooey socks.) When they’re done, your socks should be firm, warm, and dry.

Chuck Wagon Jeans

Denim is one of the more difficult fabrics to work with in the kitchen; it’s not unusual for a novice to produce a pair of jeans with the bottoms black and the waistband still soggy. You may want to try your hand at a cheaper cut of denim before attacking your best pair of jeans.

Jeans are a lot like steak: the trick is to get them nicely done but not overdone. It’s okay if some areas are scorched a dark brown when you’re done. Few things can add the right homey, country touch to your house the way chuck wagon jeans can. The aroma fills the whole house, and visitors will know it’s a special occasion.

Shirttails Flambe

The crowning touch to many great meals is a flaming dessert. When you’re cooking clothing, it’s easy to achieve. The piece de resistance of our menu makes a spectacular sight when you carry it out of the kitchen. We’ve had guests exclaim, “Oh, it looks too pretty to eat!” The trick (it’s really no trick—it’s almost impossible to avoid) is to have the sleeves and tails of the wet shirt dangling from the oven rack. All you need is high heat (over 451) and about an hour’s cooking time. When you open the oven door, watch out for the flames. You’ll need a fireproof tray (a steel trash can lid works fine) for carrying the blazing shirt to the table. This unforgettable dish offers a real opportunity for you to display your artistry.

Like all pioneers, we’ve met with our share of reverses. For those who would answer the call (or alarm), we recommend courage, ingenuity, and a taste for hot foods. To those who scoff, we simply quote our motto: “If you can’t stand the smoke, stay out of the kitchen.”

Steve and Elise Dunham host a cooking TV show, Cooking 911.

Kiss of the Spiderwoman

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

“I’m climbing the walls!” my wife said. She frequently says this in reference to the kids, her job, and the house, but there’s nothing much I can do about it, right? This time, for once, I was in a position to help. I had recently seen a movie that explained this phenomenon.

In fact, all the pieces fell together, because when I looked around the room, I could see just why she might be climbing the walls. There were spider webs in the corners by the ceiling. “I’ll get a broom,” I offered helpfully. Moments later, I handed it to her.

“You get them,” she said. So I was right. She didn’t want to hurt the spiders herself. She undoubtedly had a concealed kinship with them. “Be careful they don’t fall on you and bite you,” she added.

I would be careful. Two superheroes under one roof would be too much. Besides, I saw in the same movie that breathing in certain fumes can make you evil and insane. I’m pretty sure I breathed some of those fumes on I-95. I didn’t want to get bitten by a genetically engineered spider too.

Once I had gotten the spiders out of all the corners, I figured we would be safe from more mutations for a while, but I was wrong. “This day has been crazy,” she said. “The kids have been bouncing off the walls.” So the kids were mutating too! Super powers don’t automatically make heroes, I knew, so we could be in for trouble. My wife confirmed this when she asked, “Where’s the baby? She’s been too quiet!” So my wife’s spider sense was kicking in.

I wondered whether with super powers the kids would clean up their rooms, or would they use their spider sense to avoid chores? And would I be able to tell the difference between this and their normal behavior? Maybe my wife, with her own super powers, would be able to keep them under control, if she wasn’t out fighting crime.

That would explain why I would wake up in the middle of the night and she wouldn’t be there, and why she would be tired in the middle of the day. The next time she told me that she would be working late, I just chuckled and said, “OK, honey. See you live at eleven, huh?”

“I don’t understand you,” she said, “but I love you.” Then she kissed me goodbye and left for her secret life of thrills and excitement.

Steve Dunham is married to a superhero.

Love Potion No. 9½

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2001

As I got off the train and hurried toward the office, I glanced behind me. There were dozens of women following me. “Sorry, ladies!” I called out, and I broke into a run. I made it to the building ahead of them, dashed into the elevator, and breathed a sigh of relief as the doors closed before anyone else could get in.

My doubts were gone. It worked! I had volunteered for experimental drug testing, both to benefit my fellow human beings and to pick up a little much-needed cash. The new drug was billed as heart medicine, which is just what the doctor ordered, so to speak. I was rather short of friends, particularly of the female variety, and nothing less than a personality transplant offered any hope—until this miracle of modern medicine.

Not only did I suddenly feel terribly attractive, but when I got to our floor of the building I noticed that my co-workers seemed healthier. Then I recalled a news item describing how people in love enjoy better health. The medicine was working beyond my expectations: even my co-workers were falling in love with me.

When I got into my office, the red light on the phone was lit. The message said, “Nancy in Human Resources wants to see you.”

“I’m sure she does!” I answered aloud, though no one was there to hear.

Next I booted up the computer, and my e-mail inbox was overflowing with messages, all with the same subject line: “I love you.” Clients, acquaintances, nearly everyone in the company, people I could scarcely remember, plus people I was sure I’d never met—all of them professing their love for me. It would take me all morning just to read my e-mail, and more messages seemed to be pouring in every minute.

The next surprise was an invitation to breakfast with the company president, although, considering the sudden turn my life had taken, maybe it wasn’t such a surprise after all.

The rest of the day was a blur of phone calls, e-mails, and people just dropping into my office, all wanting my attention. My hardest choice now was whom to gratify. Well, maybe there was another consideration too—my heart seemed to be overflowing with affection for all these people who were so devoted to me, and deciding whom to gratify also meant deciding whom to disappoint. I decided to hold off on saying yes or no to anyone, even if it made me appear to be afraid of commitment.

I left work that day in a dream, though I was snapped back to my new reality as I crossed the street to the train station. Cars were screeching to a stop and the drivers were staring at me. I could read the adoration in their eyes.

I don’t know how the other passengers on the train restrained themselves, but the trip home was rather sedate. Maybe they assumed that somebody so alluring must be taken. A lot of the people were sleeping, and I could guess what they were dreaming about. “Let them dream!” I thought.

At the end of the line, as I walked to the bus stop, I noticed a dog following me. Maybe the medicine was working a little too well.

I woke up the next morning with a new attitude. With everyone so fond of me, this might be a good time to ask the world for something in return. I decided to talk to my boss about another raise. If I wasn’t worthy of another merit raise (although I seemed to have acquired a lot more merit in everyone’s eyes), call it a “cost of loving” raise.

After a repeat of the previous day’s scene on the way to the office, I saw that the red light on my phone was glowing again. This time it was Nancy herself, wanting me to take—a drug test? Oh, no! My secret would be out.

But there was another message too: call the doctor. I did. After explaining at length how effective the drug was, I got a shock. “Mister Dunham, ‘love potion’ was just our nickname for this heart medicine and, anyway, you’ve been getting the placebo. But congratulations on your improved love life.”

I woke up from a dream to find that reality was even better: everyone must really be in love with me!

Steve Dunham attracts all sorts of attention.

Male Problem-Solving

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2001

Sometimes after work a few of the guys will go out for a while and discuss wives and computers and the meaning of life and why the Redskins can’t play football. All these are intertwined, somehow, I think. And this time together is, I believe, known as “male bonding” to anybody who doesn’t actually do it. To us real men, it’s called “going out with the guys.”

And as we delve into the mysteries of life, we sometimes figure out how things work. Sometimes, like last night, we even find out how male psychology works.

We started out by discussing the perennial mystery of how female psychology works. Women, we observed, like to talk (no, this was not our great discovery). They like to “share.” They like to express their feelings and talk about concerns, and they just want men to listen.

Ladies, this is not how the world works, at least from our point of view. Males are problem-solvers. When we hear the roar of the cave bear, we grab a club and start swinging.

No time for sharing. When confronted with a problem, we don’t express our feelings; no, it’s clobberin’ time!

Last night, although we did not come any closer to understanding female psychology or why the Redskins can’t play football, we did arrive at a working definition of male problem-solving:

  1. When you can’t ignore a problem any longer, it’s time to fix it. This is probably where female nagging comes in—it brings men to the point where we can’t ignore the problem any longer.
  2. If you can’t fix it, force it. This is where male brute strength is a great asset.
  3. If forcing it breaks it, get a new one.

These three simple rules reveal the direct, practical male method of tackling problems head on. It works well with fighting cave bears. It even works pretty well in male domains such as machinery, except things like airplanes, which have to be taken care of before they break.

However, it doesn’t work as well with women. “Ignore the problem as long as you can” is interpreted by the female mind to mean “You don’t care.” “If you can’t fix it, force it” doesn’t make them happy either. For some reason women do not seem impressed with a male display of force when we attempt to straighten things out.

The principle of getting a new one if the old one breaks has major drawbacks too, because we tend to ignore, then break, then discard the new one too.

No, although we keep on trying, our macho male practical method of solving problems doesn’t seem to work as well on women as it does on cave bears. And a lot of us are still wondering why.

Steve Dunham tackles problems as if they were cave bears.

Rent a Husband

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

“Husbanding services”—I can do that, I thought when I read the announcement. “The Government requires husbanding services for the country of Uruguay,” it said (this is really true). I am always looking for a good job, and this sounded easy enough.

The announcement said that the contract would be for one year, with three possible one-year extensions, and it gave a contact person at the Department of the Navy: Lieutenant Maureen Seawise.*

I called her up immediately and told her, “I’m interested in providing the husbanding services you require.”

“You have to write a proposal,” she answered. “It’s due by May 31.”

A proposal—of course. And naturally she would want it in time to choose a husband before June, the traditional wedding month. I sat down to write a winning proposal.

“Dear Lieutenant Seawise,” I began, then immediately crossed it out. I started over:

“My dearest Maureen,

“My Latin American beauty! I have been waiting for this moment all my life. Let us sail away together! We will make a beautiful couple, until the lease runs out.



I mailed it with total confidence, and went off to buy a ring.

I could hardly wait as I counted the days till May 31. I was surprised that I had not heard from my darling Maureen, but maybe she had to give the other suitors their chance before they lost out to me. On June 1, with the wedding only weeks away, I could stand it no longer. I called her up.

“Lieutenant Seawise,” she said.

“Maureen! It’s Steve!”

“Mister Dunham, I can’t talk to you now.”

“Mister Dunham”? That did not sound romantic, but maybe she was very old fashioned and would refer to her husband as “mister.”

“Maureen, wait!”

“Mister Dunham, you didn’t get the contract,” she said, and I thought I could hear her snickering. “Please don’t call again.”

“Don’t call again”? What a brush-off! How cold! I stood there listening to the dial tone, and then a voice said, “If you wish to make a call, please hang up and dial again.”

“I do wish to make a call,” I said, “but she told me not to!” The woman on the other end wasn’t listening. All she did was repeat herself: “If you wish to make a call …” Probably she was one of Maureen’s friends.

I sat down, stunned. How can you mend a broken heart? You can’t. But I could find someone who would appreciate me, so I began to compose a personal ad: “Rent a husband …”

* I made up this name. If there really is a Lieutenant Maureen Seawise, she would not like to rent me.

Steve Dunham is booked for the foreseeable future.

Rent a Wife

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

“Rent a Wife,” the ad in the newspaper said. (This is really true, and it was in a family newspaper, not one of those raunchy alternative papers* full of ads that make you wonder, “How can they advertise that? Isn’t that majorly illegal?”) But there it was: rent a wife. Why hadn’t somebody thought of this before? The ultimate in temporary marriages! Why bother with in-laws, sickness and health, richer and poorer, till death do us part, and all that?

I was on the phone immediately. “I want to rent a wife,” I said.

“OK,” said the voice on the other end. “When do you want her to start?”

“Today! Or, if that’s too soon, tomorrow. She must be pretty, have a sense of humor, like children,” I continued.

“Hold on, pal. We pick who to send you. Satisfaction guaranteed.”

“All right,” I said. “Tomorrow, then? Say, nine o’clock?”

“Sure, buddy.”

The next morning at nine the doorbell rang. “Rent a Wife. I’m Mary Ann,” she said when I opened the door. She was a bit older than I thought she’d be, and a bit tough-looking, but that might be just a sign of experience.

“I’m Steve! Come on in,” I greeted her. “This is wonderful! Make yourself at home.”

“Well, this is some mess,” she said. “No wonder you called Rent a Wife. Well, I might as well get started.”

“Um, aren’t we going to have some kind of ceremony first?” I asked.

“A ceremony? Listen, Buster, what do you think this is? Just gimme some room to work.”

Well, maybe I did need somebody with a take-charge attitude, and she did a great job of picking up after me, which I wouldn’t have dared ask of any woman. So I stayed out of her way while watching her fondly. I knew I could learn to love her.

She was incredible. She did the dishes and the laundry; she cleaned the kitchen and the floors and even the windows. When she got to the refrigerator, she cleaned all the way to the back. “What are these in here, your science experiments?” she asked.

“Well, um, they are kind of weird-looking, aren’t they! Ha, ha. They’re just leftovers.”

“Left over from what, the Stone Age? Listen, Buster, I should get paid extra for this.”

I was about to point out that my name is Steve, but maybe Buster was her pet name for me.

“Whaddya want for lunch?”

How sweet! “Leftovers will be fine. No, not those leftovers.” She ditched some more weird-looking leftovers and browsed through the fridge till she found some tuna casserole from the night before. And she had me sit at the table while she heated it up and brought it to me.

The afternoon flew by as my rental bride, Mary Ann, turned the house upside down and inside out. She was, I realized, with a tear in my eye, turning it into a home.

As evening drew on I was feeling romantic. “I’d like to take you out for dinner,” I told her.

“Sorry, buster, I can’t. I have a family to go home to.”

A family? Go home?

“But I thought we were getting married!” I blurted out.

“Hey, Buster, what kind of nut are you?”

I stood there stunned as she packed up her things and left. I didn’t sleep that night, and the next morning I called Rent a Wife. “Please send Mary Ann back to me!”

“Sorry, pal. She said no way is she going back to your house. You wanna get married, you run a personal ad or something. But try cleaning up your act first. To hear Mary Ann tell it, you’re one awful slob.”

* I do not mean Commuter Weekly, where this column was first published.

Steve Dunham actually has a real wife, who does not call him “Buster.”

Brainwashed by Teenagers

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2005

My kids insist that I have seen a movie called Matilda. I don’t remember watching it. “We can even tell you what you said about it,” the kids claim. Supposedly I said it was so-so as a humorous juvenile revenge movie, or something like that. The kids also claim that I have seen Jurassic Park III at least twice, whereas I am pretty sure I came in partway through the film and haven’t even seen the whole thing once.

Sometimes, they are so persuasive that I am half convinced. The rest of the time I am sure that they are trying to use a Jedi mind trick on me. Fortunately, Jedi mind tricks are not real, and so I am holding fast to my version of reality.

The teenage alternate universe is constructed of things I plausibly might have said—or not have said. For example, “You never told us that we had to wash the dishes every day!” Or “We didn’t know that we have to tell you where we’re going if we’re driving our own car!”

In the teenage alternate universe, the grass that is knee deep doesn’t look so tall that it needs to be cut. The laundry that hasn’t been put away must belong to some other family, who won’t mind even if their clothes are left out in the rain.

When they aren’t trying to disorient me with carefully constructed fantasies, they are trying to delude the rest of the world.

“You didn’t tell us that we had to do that homework the very same night!” they will tell their teacher, and if enough kids say it earnestly enough, the teacher might start to believe it. Next it’s “You promised us that we wouldn’t have any hard questions on the test” and “All our other teachers give us open-book exams.” That way lies madness. If a teacher swallows these stories, it’s easy enough to believe that the kids did all their summer reading assignments and their homework but left all the work home or on the school bus or somewhere—if there really were any summer reading assignments or homework. Maybe the teacher remembered a different, erroneous version of reality.

I could hope that the teenagers will outgrow this behavior, but I know it is unlikely, because I continually encounter adults who have their own little fantasy worlds and would like me to move in.

“We’d like you to meet with our manager again,” the dentist’s receptionist says, trying to trick me into paying for a few more years of braces. But I know very well that I did not meet with the manager in the first place.

“Here is the job we discussed,” someone else will tell me, except that the discussion was an email sent five minutes earlier telling me that a huge job would be coming my way. Surely I was just sitting around waiting for someone to provide some work for me.

Others claim to be familiar with Microsoft Office but use Word as if it were a typewriter.

Some other attempts to brainwash me involve science fiction. “I need this yesterday,” people tell me when bringing in a job. I play along with their daydream: I tell them that the time machine is out of order and that it costs extra and they couldn’t afford it anyway. Other fantasies involve the speed reading ability of Superman: edit a 100-page document this afternoon. Still other science fiction stories feature high-speed printing equipment, when people hand me a schedule that involves printing a million pages in a week.

It’s tempting to give in and believe the dream.

“No, we won’t fire you for résumé fraud. Word works exactly the same as a typewriter.”

“You need the job yesterday? No problem. Come back yesterday and it will be waiting for you.”

“Yes, we can catch all the major errors without reading the document and do it in two hours. Satisfaction guaranteed.”

“Sure, we can print as many copies as you want as fast as you want.”

All it would take is a little brainwashing of my own:

“Yes, you said you needed the job yesterday, but I’m positive it was tomorrow when you said that.”

“Sure, we can do it better, faster, and cheaper, but I thought you meant better than a chimpanzee, faster than a snail, and cheaper than the national debt.”

It might even work on teenagers: “But you promised that if I watched Matilda even once you would do all the yard work for the next five years!”

Steve Dunham is a Jedi mind trick practitioner.

More “Off the Deep End”

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